1 – There’s no template
When you’re a little kid, you get told “you’re a boy/girl, this is what that means” and if at any point you say “actually, I’m a girl/boy” you have the other “this is what that means”. Whether that means you embrace your gender role or actively fight against it, you’ve still had a solid idea of what it means to be a boy or a girl since you were a little kid.
It’s not really the same when the actually is followed by “I’m not a boy or a girl”. What does it mean to be genderless? What does it mean to be a gender outside of boy and girl? Trans men and women can choose to be more masculine or feminine, to embrace gender roles for safety or fight them on principle. For non binary people, however, there’s no clear gender role at all. It’s a lot more work to make your own gendered existence without a starting point.
2 – The binary is everywhere
The other issue in trying to exist outside of the binary is that the rest of the world is completely invested in it and assigns almost every possible trait to the box marked ‘female’ or the box marked ‘male’. All clothes are either men’s or women’s with even unisex items being made in slightly different cuts or shades and sold with different labels in different sizing systems. Toilets and changing rooms are separated into male and female despite having locked door cubicles. Toys and gifts are marketed heavily for boys or girls, men or women, as though people are cookie cut outs and roughly half of the population would like basically the same things.
And those ‘things’ are everything – every hobby or interest is dividing into ‘for boys/men’ and ‘for girls/women’. TV dramas are feminine and football matches are masculine, liking clothes is feminine, liking cars is masculine… even foods are gendered, with yoghurt as feminine and meat as masculine! When everything you could think of is probably stereotyped as female or male, it’s nigh on impossible to avoid being seen as one or the other.
The only thing people seem to need to have gendered most is unfortunately other people. Politeness means shop staff call people ma’am or sir, letters are addressed to Mr or Ms Surname, and it’s almost impossible to talk about someone without using gendered language like “the man on the bus” or “she’s my dentist”.
3 – There’s no ‘passing’ or ‘stealth’
This need that people have to gender everyone affects trans people a lot. It’s called being read as a gender or ‘passing’ as a gender, and it’s the goal of many trans to be read as their gender for comfort or safety. Some trans people aim to live completely as their gender with no mention of their trans history. This is known as living ‘stealth’.
Neither of these are a real possibility for non binary people. To be non binary is basically to declare trans status, so living stealth is an impossibility; without a gender people are assigned or declared to be at birth, there is no way to live as if you were assigned or declared to be that gender since birth.
Likewise, as mentioned before, people and society have a strong need to gender everyone as male or female. People you meet day-to-day will assume you are one or the other, and read you to be one or the other; there is no being read as non binary, so there is no ‘pass’ by unnoticeable as just another non binary person.
4 – It’s ‘new’… at least to trans ‘experts’
There are trans experts. They write the books for the young and confused and for the friends and relatives of trans people, they control and plan medical transition, and they advise lawmakers and policymakers on gender issues from governmental levels down to small business and school levels. Unfortunately for non binary people, they’ve only been aware of trans men and women until recently.
This means that the resources just aren’t there. The young and confused don’t always realise there are other gender options. Non binary people struggle for ways to explain their genders to friends and relatives. People who are aware of trans people and try to avoid subconscious transphobia often have no idea non binary people and non binary genders exist.
Most serious is the ‘newness’ of non binary people to medical and law trans experts. Less research and case studies in transition paths other than classic hormones-surgeries FtM/MtF have been done, leaving non binary people who want to transition unsure of how non-surgical or non-hormonal routes will go. Only men and women are considering in law and policy, leaving non binary people out of nudity, toilet and housing rules.
5 – You’re always explaining
All of the above can lead to a tiring life for a non binary person. When they come out, their speech or letter has to include a definition of what it is that they’re coming out as. Every new person they meet means coming out again and probably explaining what that all means again. Sometimes it can even mean debating with people whether or not their very identity and existence is ‘real’ and valid.
Facebook’s change to include various gender options was newsworthy, but the majority of websites still have mandatory gender tick boxes with only male and female. This means that profile space has to include a gender explanation. Online explanation doesn’t stop there, either; people message non binary people with basic questions they could have googled and expect every answer to be in-depth and polite.